A Brief History Of Motorcycles In The Military
It’s almost crazy to think that just a short century ago, men were still charging the battlefields and attacking their enemies on horseback. Since then, the world has seen two huge wars, hundreds of smaller skirmishes, and military technological advancements that are both terrifying and incredibly badass.
But one piece of battlefield technology that doesn’t get nearly enough credit is the motorcycle. From facilitating mobile machine gun fire in WWI to enabling recon missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, our trusty two-wheeled steeds have helped us get the job done, time and time again.
Here are some of the iron horses that have helped shape history:
Harley-Davidson Model 17F/J
Year introduced: 1917
Following the successful use of Harley-Davidson motorcycles by the U.S. Army to hunt down Pancho Villa and his troops during the Mexican Revolution, the government ordered another 20,000 to keep our troops company in Europe during World War I.
The Harley-Davidson Model 17 was powered by Harley’s 61-cubic-inch F-head engine (which packed a whopping 15 horsepower!), mated to a simple 3-speed transmission that was mounted to the gas tank.
They came outfitted with a variety of accessories, including hospital stretchers, passenger sidecars, shields, and fully automatic machine guns. They were also quick (for the time), agile, durable, and able to navigate dangerous terrain with relative ease.
Indian Powerplus Big Twin
Year introduced: 1916
Leading into World War I, Indian was at the forefront of the motorcycle world. When the U.S. announced its entrance into the conflict, the manufacturer dedicated nearly all of its production resources to the war effort.
The result was 50,000 Indian Powerplus Big Twins, which were both faster and, thanks to a swanky rear suspension, more maneuverable than their Harley counterparts.
Following the war, Indian had a difficult time re-positioning itself in the civilian production market, a dilemma from which it would never truly recover.
Triumph Model H
Year introduced: 1915
At the beginning of Word War I, the British government knew that it’d need more effective means of delivering messages between troop formations on the front line. With the instability and unreliability of radio transmissions, along with the severe antiquation of conventional horse messaging, the Brits decided the route was one best traveled on two wheels.
After a long testing period, the government settled on the Triumph Model H. The single cylinder-powered, air-cooled, 499cc motor was a bit of a dog at only 4 hp, but it proved exceptionally reliable on the battlefield—enough so that it was nicknamed “The Trusty.”
Like their American allies, Brits outfitted their Trusty Triumphs with sidecars, machine guns, etc. By the war’s end, the British would send 30,000 Model Hs to the front lines.
Year introduced: 1940
Wars: WWII and Korea
By the second World War, Harley had developed a foothold as the American motorcycle company, and when war again broke out in Europe, Harley-Davidson, again, answered the call.
This time, they modified their popular civilian model, the WL, into the WLA. The monstrous 550-pound machines were powered by Harley’s now-famous (and practically bulletproof) 45-inch flat-head motor. They were quick, easy to work on in the field, and could take a hell of a beating on the road.
Though they were no longer outfitted with combat gear and were used strictly for message dispatching between formations, they were outfitted with holsters for everybody’s favorite gun—the Thompson submachine gun.
Over 70,000 WLAs were produced for the war effort, including thousands that went straight to the Soviets. Nostrovia, jerks!
Year introduced: 1911 (for the military in 1932)
Like the Trusty Triumph of WWI, the Norton 16H was an exceptionally reliable single-cylinder bike that was good on gas, came with a 4-speed transmission, and had an excellent power-to-weight ratio, which made it both quick and nimble on the battlefield.
By the end of the war, Norton had produced over 100,000 WD16Hs for the British Royal Army.
Year introduced: 1937
During WWII, the British Government announced that it was looking for a light, fast, reliable motorcycle to transport messages between commanders. BSA, the most popular motorcycle manufacturer in Britain at the time, submitted the M20—a heavy-framed, side car-mounted cow of a bike, powered by a low-compression 500cc single-cylinder. Makes sense, right?
Yet, it worked. In fact, it worked so well that Britain’s War Office ordered more than 126,000 throughout the war.
The low-compression motor helped with the M20’s fuel economy, and this big fella had great low-end torque, which made light work of the steep hills, bumps, and ditches of the battlefield.
Royal Enfield WD/RE
Year introduced: 1939
Royal Enfield was commissioned to develop several motorcycles for the war effort, but the WD/RE was the most memorable by far.
Known affectionately to British troops as the Flying Flea, the WD/RE were tiny, lightweight, 125cc motorcycles designed to be dropped into war zones by parachutes. The bikes were used by British paratroopers who had been dropped behind enemy lines to establish safe communications with one another.
The Flying Flea were troop favorites because their punchy two-stroke motors could run on any gas, and they were light enough to carry over obstacles and through tight spaces.
Year introduced: 1945
It’s no secret that some of the wartime technology developed by the Nazis was awe-inspiring, to say the least. And just as their Panther and Tiger tanks proved superior on the battlefield, their BMW-made R71 motorcycles out-ran the Allies in the fields.
The BMW’s 750cc (46-cubic-inch) side-valve motor and shaft drive combination performed beautifully throughout Europe, and when the fighting spread to North Africa in 1943, the R71 and R75s proved impervious to the desert grit and grime that was wreaking havoc on the Allies’ chain-driven bikes.
So inspired were the Allies (and everyone else, really) by the BMW design that many captured enemy R71s, shipped them home, disassembled them, and figured out how to rip them off. The results included America’s Harley-Davidson XA, the Soviet M72, and the Chinese Chang Jiang 750.
SdKfz 2 AKA The Kettenkrad
Date introduced: 1939
Ketten is German for “tracks” and krad is the military abbreviation for the German word kraftrad, which means, “motorcycle.” Known to the Allies as “Rabbits,” the Kettenkrads were some of the most intimidating pieces of Nazi weaponry. They were steered like a typical motorcycle, had the tracks of a tank, and were powered by a heavy-hitting 36-horsepower Opel motor.
Primarily used to tow German planes to the runway, transport soldiers, and lay communication cables, the Kettenkrads were never equipped with guns, and thus, never saw real combat.
Though they're about as much of a motorcycle as a Can-Am Spyder, and less than 8,500 were actually built. They’re too badass not to include on our list.
Date introduced: 1983 (Armstrong MT500), 1987 (Harley)
Wars: Falklands War, Desert Storm
Technological advancements in military communication after WWII made the wide scale use of motorcycles unnecessary, but that didn’t stop Harley in 1987 from buying the rights to the Armstrong MT 500, a British military dual sport motorcycle that gained popularity for its agility, versatility, and reliability. The single-cylinder 482cc Rotax four-stroke turns out a stout 32 hp, making the MT500 a real blast to ride. Its younger brother, the MT 350, clocks in at just under 30 hp.
The MT 500/350s saw very limited production, but were used primarily for recon missions in Operation Desert Storm, as well as by NATO troops in other parts of the world. The drawback? They run on gas, not diesel.
Country: U.S., NATO (Japanese-made)
Date introduced: 1987
War: Desert Storm
Also known as the M103M1, these modified versions of the civilian KLR650 can burn both diesel and jet fuel, getting a mind blowing 96 miles per gallon.
The M103M1 is popular today with the United States Marine Corps because of its incredible maneuverability, snappy throttle, and because it’ll basically run on anything you dump in the gas tank. NATO forces also have a few in their stable. The U.S. Air Force and Army have similar models, the M1030B1 and the M1030, but neither can run on diesel.
Date introduced: 2013
Though not heavily utilized today, the U.S. still keeps a small stock of two-wheeled terrors to help kick ass and take names. One of our favorites is the Zero XXM, developed by Zero Motorcycles out of Santa Cruz, California.
The Zero XXM is powered by a chillingly silent, all-electric motor that puts out a staggering 54 hp and 68 ft-lbs of torque, and was developed strictly for U.S. Special Operations Forces. It is as quiet as a church mouse, quick, unbelievably nimble, and virtually maintenance-free, making it the perfect vehicle for things like low key recon missions, rescue attempts, covert operations, etc.
Oh, and one battery charge lasts over 3,500 hours!
Maxwell Barna is a contributor to Supercompressor and wouldn't dead on a Can-Am Spyder. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
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